"I just want a reason"

When we want to respond to a child's desire for a reason with "because I said so", are old parental voices from our childhood obscuring the reality of the current situation?

“I just want a reason”

As I was coming back to my car, parked on the street in a residential section of the city, I came upon a man and his three children out in the lovely warm autumn evening. The oldest, a ten or twelve year old, had been at the other end of the block and was biking toward the dad.

I don’t want you biking down at the end of the block”, said the man sternly.

“Why not?”asked his son.

“Because I said so”, answered the father, clearly irritated by the question.

“I just want a reason”, insisted the boy.

“Don’t you take that tone with me”, said the father, his voice and his temper rising. “If you can’t do what I say, you can just go straight in the house and…”

The rest of the conversation was lost as I stepped inside the car and closed the door.

It was just a fragment of a conversation, yet it raised such big issues. What is the nature of parental authority? When and on what basis do we require compliance from our children? When can there be give and take, and who decides?

My sympathies in this situation lay with the boy. His question seemed to me a reasonable one. I too was curious about why he wasn’t allowed at the end of the block. If there was a good reason—which certainly seemed possible—I wanted to know what it was.

Of course I was lacking the larger context. Was the danger at the end of the block one that they both knew perfectly well? Was the boy always after his parents to explain everything before he would ever respond to the simplest request? Was the father under enormous and unusual stress that day, filled to overflowing with worry and unable to handle one more challenge?

My guess is not. My guess is that the father had grown up in a family where children were expected to be seen and not heard, had taken his share (or more than his share) of parental harshness, and was just dishing out what he had once received, without any awareness of what he was doing.

It can be hard to be a parent. It’s not always easy to have an outside perspective on what was normal parent behavior in the household we grew up in, and to imagine the possibility of something different. Furthermore, as children we had an enormous capacity to love even the harshest parents, and it can seem disloyal to abandon their ways.

But it helps to try. And I would hope that all of us, regardless of our backgrounds or our stress levels, could hear the request of a child for a reason for a prohibition, and pull out something with a little more content than “Because I told you so.”